Benjamin Liberatore

Columbia University, New York

Presenter Profile

Benjamin is a PhD candidate in sociocultural Anthropology at Columbia University in New York. He holds a BA, an MA, and an MPhil in Anthropology from Columbia and an MS in Education, Culture & Society from the University of Pennsylvania, where he developed research interests centring on voice, gender, temporality, and queerness— and on the intersections and resonances amongst them as lived by children today. Ben’s PhD research examines the ritual, aesthetic, and representational work done by child choristers in Anglican cathedrals, chapels, and royal peculiars. Beginning with the singing voice as a thing that both ‘breaks’ and makes the body in aged and gendered ways and continuing through institutional and national anxieties regarding cultural loss and the preservation of the traditional, his research asks how children generally and choristers particularly are imagined in—and in turn help imagine—shared narratives of history, futurity, continuity, and change. His field research centres children’s own experiences and perspectives, examining how they make sense of the worlds and words surrounding the ‘English choral tradition’ and observing the ways in which they accept, modify, resist, and reject adult discourses on the same. Ben’s research, which he has presented across disciplines on both sides of the Atlantic, has been generously supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, by the Lindt Dissertation Fellowship, and by Columbia’s Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life and Institute for the Study of Sexuality and Gender.

‘They make me feel like I’m dirtying the tradition’:

Child choristers’ perspectives on belonging, difference, and ‘identity’ in English cathedral music

Music and children, as sociocultural ‘objects,’ are notoriously prone to oversimplification. Abiding, romantic notions of music’s universality—of music as a ‘universal language’ that unites human beings by rendering human difference immaterial—run parallel to well-established figurations of children as a class of universal subjects, insulated by innocence or by ignorance from the painful dissonances and divisions of the ‘real’ or ‘adult world’. The charge, oft- and perhaps increasingly heard, that socio-political intrusions into the ‘world’ of music-making distract or detract from music qua music is broadly applicable, too, to children qua children. But music is a ‘universal language’ in the same way that English is: that is, it is not. Likewise, children themselves are complex social beings, always already suspended in—but also active in weaving—the social, symbolic, and historical ‘webs of significance’ that, following Geertz, many anthropologists call ‘culture’. Children are neither ‘outside,’ nor unaware of, nor unaffected by the often-pitched ideological debates that vex—and by vexing, help shape—the world in which they, and we, live.

For choristers and other musical children whose bodies mark them as somehow ‘other,’ the comfortable illusion of music-making as somehow beyond human difference can, when it shatters, suggest an institutional or adult indifference to their lived realities. Approaching music-making as a situated, contextual, and embodied technique, this paper attends particularly to choristers who, because of their bodies, have struggled to ‘blend’ seamlessly into the world of English cathedral music. Drawing on research that includes interviews and focus groups with over 130 current and former choristers, multiple intervals of ethnographic fieldwork, and textual and media analysis of archival and contemporary sources, this paper presents several ‘chorister-eye’ perspectives on the ‘categories of difference’ that so often vex adult debate: that is, on: race and ethnicity; geography; class; gender and sexuality; neurodiversity; mental ill-health; and age itself, which to date has gone under-theorised even amongst scholars generally attentive to other ‘categories’ of social difference.

Children’s descriptions of, questions about, and interpretations of their experiences as choristers illuminate some of the ways in which the materiality and the situatedness of music and those who make it complicate claims to universality. These accounts are neither exhaustive nor necessarily representative of ‘the chorister experience’ nation-wide: rather, they are intended to highlight the multiplicity of ‘chorister experiences’ as lived by today’s young choristers and to complicate discourses, however well-intended, that situate both music and those who make it in a ‘world’ apart. The paper concludes with a reflection on the kinds of ‘refuges’ choristers find through singing—the musical ‘other worlds’ they often cherish as alternatives to the hardships of ‘this’ world—and briefly suggests ways of enabling and co-creating these alternative spaces.

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